“Partially Jewish” and Proud: Interfaith Identity

With the release of a new study of the Jewish population of New York this month, researchers officially acknowledged the growing cohort of people with complex, interfaith identities. We exist!

According to the Executive Summary of the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, “Rising numbers of people report unconventional identity configurations. They may consider themselves ‘partially Jewish,’ or may identify as Jews even while identifying with Christianity or another non-Jewish religion (many more do so now than who so reported in 2002). Of such people with unconventional configurations, 70% have a non-Jewish parent (or two).”

In the study, they note, “…we also see more hybridity— that is, the confluence of multiple traditions not only in households but even within individuals. Today, more and more individuals feel comfortable adopting elements from multiple religious traditions, and even identifying with several traditions at once. As one of our respondents declared, ‘I am two religions.’ In another case, our interviewer noted that the respondent derives from mixed upbringing and ‘identifies with both’.”

Not to seem ungrateful after finally being recognized, but I am not partial to the term “partially.” I do not consider myself a “partial” anything. I am a self-defined Jew, who also insists on my right to celebrate my birth into an interfaith family. I revel in my hybridity, in my fluid and yet deeply satisfying spiritual practice, and in my participation in an intentional and independent interfaith families community. I invite demographers to explore what I call “the joy of being both” on my blog, onbeingboth.com. Next year, my book on how and why parents are choosing to educate interfaith children in more than one religion, and how those children feel about it when they grow up, will be published by Beacon Press.

The authors of the study asked themselves, “Should ‘Jewish and something else’ be seen as a somewhat qualified form of Jewish upbringing, or a functional equivalent of non-Jewish socialization, or an intermediate category?” They go on to infer that “the ‘Jewish and something else’ response signifies very weak levels of Jewish socialization.”

Let me describe our family’s Jewish engagement, which strikes me as anything but “weak.” We always host a Passover Seder, light Hanukkah candles, go to High Holy Day services. We also light Shabbat candles, celebrate Purim and Sukkot and Tu Bishvat. My children learned Hebrew, recited the blessings over the Torah when they turned 13. My children have a warm and personal relationship with more than one rabbi. They are quick to identify themselves as Jewish when they encounter anti-Semitism. Oh, and we have shlepped our children to Jewish Museums on more than one continent (visiting Jewish museums is one of the forms of Jewish engagement measured in the New York study).

But we also embrace our entire family tree. We celebrate Christian holidays, go to church with extended family. And we put our children through nine years of study about both Judaism and Christianity–about the common ground and the essential differences and the points of historical connection–in an interfaith education program for interfaith children.

It is true that my family feels alienated from the state of Israel, since none of us would be legally accepted as Jews there, and there is a troubling correlation between religious identity and civil rights in Israel. And Birthright will not take my children on a free trip to Israel unless they sign away their right to interfaith identity.

It is true that our family scores low on connections to institutional Judaism. My children aren’t accepted as Jews by many of those institutions, and that, frankly, decreases our desire to belong to them. Our insistence that our children be educated about Christianity, our openness to the possibility that our children will choose to get spiritual sustenance from Christian traditions, and that they have the right to choose a Christian (or for that matter Buddhist or Hindu) identity someday, is wholly unacceptable to most Jewish institutions. Interfaith families that seek to educate their children in more than one religion are expressly barred, by policy, from most synagogue classrooms.

I am cautiously optimistic that this new acknowledgement that we exist represents progress towards understanding that many interfaith children both want to stay connected to Judaism, and also want access to learning about both of their ancestral religions. I am hopeful that researchers will now seek to understand all that is positive about interfaith education for interfaith families. We engage the whole child, the whole family, and embrace our bothness. You can call us unconventional. We embrace that label, too.

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7 Replies to ““Partially Jewish” and Proud: Interfaith Identity”

  1. I’m in a somewhat different boat. My wife is Jewish (her mom was Jewish and her dad was a goy) and I’m a Christian. My wife and kids all self-identify as Jewish and are halachally Jewish as well. My wife has a relationship with both the Reform/Conservative (combined synagogue) and Chabad shuls in town but is not particularly observant (she keeps “kosher-style” but we don’t have a kosher kitchen, for example).

    We celebrate all of the Jewish holidays and none of the Christian ones and I tend to try to view my Christian faith through a Jewish philosophical and educational lens. Despite that, I don’t consider myself Jewish, not even a little. I don’t feel it’s my right to appropriate a heritage that is not mine halachally by birth or conversion. Also, since I self-identify as a Christian because of my faith (though I don’t attend a church), it would be pretty awkward to claim any portion of Judaism.

    I am delighted that my wife and children have engaged their Jewish heritage and community but the fact that they have still makes me intermarried and our family interfaith. It doesn’t make me Jewish.

    1. I appreciate your reflections on this. When children are on the “correct” side of the halachic fence, it certainly makes it easier for them to claim only a Jewish identity. But yes, the family is still interfaith, and that is not always acknowledged by institutions. I also understand your respectful desire not to “appropriate.” On the other hand, many interfaith couples I have interviewed feel a sense of interfaithness, not only for their family, but for themselves. Often, this comes from a long history of practice and celebration together. It also may come from an understanding that the historical boundaries between the religions were more porous than we realized, especially in the first century of Christianity.

  2. Susan,thank you for your wonderful blog. I live in Eastern Europe and was raised Roman Catholic. Some years ago I discovered Jewish roots from my father’s side and decided to convert to Judaism. I am converting Reform but can’t throw away catholic traditions of my family. They too deep in me.

    My father considers him both Jewish and Catholic, he goes to synagogue and catholic church. He advises me to follow his example but I ….don’t know what to do.

  3. I love your blog. I grew up christian but not really. As a child, I was always disappointed at holidays and never really bought into the story of Jesus or most of the bible. My husband is half Jewish. His mother is jewish and raised him with both christian holidays and jewish holidays. We have two boys now that go to the jewish preschool and now the questions are starting to arise. Its difficult because to some friends we are not jewish enough and others (southern baptist) are praying for us because our children are going to go to hell if we don\’t teach Jesus.
    Just yesterday, my 4.5 year old asked if we could have a christmas tree this year bc he wants santa to come to his house. I just don\’t now where I want to go with it.

    1. Welcome Shannan! At some point you will want to explain to the boys that not all Christians believe you have to be “saved,” and that the Christians in your family don’t believe that. If you and your husband feel drawn to becoming an exclusively Jewish practice, a pathway that has benefits and drawbacks like any other pathway for interfaith families, it could make sense to avoid Christmas trees. But if you are comfortable with teaching both religious traditions (how did your husband feel about growing up that way?), or even if you want to be a Jewish family that has a Christmas tree to honor your Christian roots, you can explain that a tree is a joyous pre-Christian symbol you both grew up with. That’s my two cents!

  4. Susan, this is a wonderful piece. Thank you for writing it. I am also a member of this “both” tribe and am proud to say that it did not prevent me from attending a Birthright trip. The organization I went with was gracious and understanding, and no resignation of my hybrid identity was required. I filled the applications out honestly and then had a fantastic time in Israel.

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